Minors : : General
Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Top Prospects: Boston Red Sox

David Rawnsley        
Photo: Billy Crowe/Greenville Drive

General Manager: Ben Cherington
Minor League Director: Ben Crockett
Scouting Director: Amiel Sawdaye

AAA: Pawtucket Red Sox (International League) 81-61
AA: Portland Sea Dogs (Eastern League) 59-83
Hi A: Salem Red Sox (Carolina League) 64-75
Low A: Greenville Drive (South Atlantic League) 78-62
Rookie Adv.: Lowell Spinners (New York-Penn League) 29-45
Rookie: GCL Red Sox (Gulf Coast League) 27-33
Dominican: DSL Red Sox (Dominican Summer League) 38-33

System Overview

All was right in Red Sox Nation as of September 1 last season. Boston had the best record in the American League, a comfortable lead over the hated Yankees in the American League East and a nine game cushion over the Tampa Bay Rays. The starting rotation didn’t look great going into the playoffs, but the offense behind MVP candidates CF Jacob Ellsbury, 1B Adrian Gonzalez and 2B Dustin Pedroia could simply bludgeon most opponents.

Chaos was all the existed a month later as the Red Sox went 7-20 in September amidst one of the biggest collapses in Major League history. They did win 90 games, but lost out to the resurgent Rays on what was arguably the most dramatic final regular season day (Atlanta was finishing their own historic collapse in the NL) in baseball history.

That chaos only grew in the off season, as manager Terry Francona took an inelegant fall out of the organization amid personal and clubhouse controversy, and General Manager Theo Epstein left to take on the Cubs challenge. Long-time Red Sox staples such as Jason Varitek, Tim Wakefield and J.D. Drew retired, while closer Jonathan Papelbon left for free agency and shortstops Marcus Scutaro and Jed Lowrie were traded. Starting pitcher John Lackey will miss the 2012 season after undergoing elbow surgery.

But as everything has washed out and it is time to begin the 2012 season, Boston is still in pretty much the same situation as it has been for the last decade. They’ve been to the playoffs six of the last nine years and won two World Championships. Their best players (Ellsbury, Gonzalez, Pedroia, Carl Crawford and Jon Lester) are all in their late 20s and should be in their physical primes. They have young pitchers such as Daniel Bard and Clay Buchholz who have All-Star level arms and could be huge factors in 2012. They’ve re-made their bullpen with the additions of closer Andrew Bailey and set-up man Mark Melancon.

And Boston also still has the great equalizer; as much revenue to spend as any team in baseball aside from the Yankees, and substantially more than their other two immediate AL East rivals, Tampa Bay and Toronto.

Boston’s minor league system is deep in overall talent but currently lacks a true star potential type prospect that projects as a future All-Star. They have teenage prospects such as Xavier Bogaerts and Blake Swihart who could certainly develop into that caliber of player, but nothing in the upper levels of their system. That depth, though, will provide plenty of potential trade chits should the Red Sox look to make upgrades during the regular season.

The Red Sox will be one of the teams most heavily impacted by the new draft rules that are in affect for the 2012 draft. They have consistently paid well beyond slot money when necessary to sign a player and haven’t hesitated to take difficult signs when they feel that is the best player on the board. They’ve gone up against SEC football teams three times in the last four years (RHP Casey Kelly, OF Brandon Jacobs, OF Senquez Golson) and emerged successful twice. Negotiating with Scott Boras does not bother them, nor does making the occasional expensive mistake. Perhaps not surprisingly given this approach, Boston’s first pick in the last three drafts has not received their highest signing bonus that year.

The organization’s approach to the international talent market has been very consistent with their domestic philosophy; that will also have to change.

2011 Draft

With most everyone in the industry acknowledging that some sort of change would happen to the basic draft structure, the Red Sox had a very prototypical draft in 2011, almost a last hurrah of the old system.

The team’s first round pick, Connecticut RHP Matt Barnes, was projected to potentially go among the top ten picks, but slid on concerns about his breaking ball and overall deception. His command, velocity and change up are not in question, and he could move through the Red Sox system quickly and become a work-horse big league starter in a hurry with some minor adjustments.

Not surprisingly, the Red Sox got the player everyone felt they had targeted with their second pick in the first round, C Blake Swihart, and paid him well ($2.5M, exactly $1M more than Barnes) to get him to pass on a Texas scholarship. The Red Sox also had two other extra picks in the compensation round and nabbed California LHP Henry Owens and South Carolina OF Jackie Bradley. Owens was a player frequently talked about as having first round talent, while Bradley was also considered first round material before suffering his second wrist injury in a year and missing a good chunk of the spring.

There is little doubt that the Red Sox scouting department felt like they were able to pick and sign four legitimate first round draft choices.

The Red Sox draft philosophy was working best in the fifth and seventh rounds, though. They selected Tennessee high school 2B/SS Mookie Betts and paid him $750,000 in the fifth round, then picked Kansas high school LHP Cody Kubuk in the seventh round, followed him all summer and saw him throwing 92-94 at summer WWBA events and signed him for $800,000. Both Betts and Kubuk received more than the high school players the Red Sox signed in the second and third rounds, OF Williams Jerez and C Chase Weems respectively.

Boston took a chance in the eighth round, trying to lure Golson away from a football scholarship to play defensive back at Mississippi. Golson was tempted by the Red Sox reported seven figure offer, and it was even reported at one point, erroneously, that he had agreed to terms. He ended up starting in Mississippi’s defensive backfield as a freshman and is also playing baseball this spring.

Top 10 Prospects

1. SS Xander Bogaerts
Baseball-reference player profile

A native of Aruba, the 6-3/175 Bogaerts surprised even the Red Sox with his growth as a hitter in 2011. The then 18-year old started the year in extended spring training and was slated to play the New York-Penn League in June, but was so impressive that he was sent to the South Atlantic League instead. He proceeded to hit .260-16-45/.834 OPS in 72 games at the low A level, phenomenal power production for an 18-year old middle infielder. Comparisons to Hanley Ramirez, who was signed and developed by the Red Sox before being traded to the Marlins, immediately cropped up, although Ramirez only hit 27 home runs in over 400 minor league games and didn’t reach A ball until he was 19.

Evaluations of Bogaerts ability to stay at shortstop are less certain than his offensive projections. He is a smooth athlete with soft hands and plenty of arm strength but doesn’t have a quick twitch lower half or noteworthy straight ahead speed. Interestingly, Bogaerts has a twin brother, Jair, in the Red Sox system who is listed at 6-2/230 and it seems certain that Xander will continue to get bigger as well.

2. 3B Will MiddlebrooksBaseball-reference player profile

The Red Sox gave Middlebrooks a $925,000 signing bonus as a fifth round pick in 2007 as part of their multi-year drive to find a future third baseman for the franchise. They also gave Mississippi high school 3B David Renfroe a $1.4M bonus as a third rounder in 2009, Louisiana HS 3B Garin Cecchini $1.31M as a fourth rounder 2010 and Ball State 3B Kolbrin Vitek $1.359M as a first rounder, also in 2010. Middlebrooks has emerged as the top prospect of that nearly $5 million dollar quartet, which doesn’t even consider the potential for Xander Bogaerts eventually moving to third base.

Middlebrooks is a Scott Rolen type athlete and third baseman who was an All-State Texas high school football player and a low 90s pitching prospect on the mound. He has steadily increased his power while moving up the minor league ladder and hit .285-23-94/.834 OPS between AA and AAA in 2011. Unfortunately, his walk and strikeout totals have headed in the wrong direction as his power has grown, making the comparison to Rolen weak in that area. But like Rolen, Middlebrooks is a superior defender with plus athleticism and arm strength.

3. C Blake SwihartBaseball-reference player profile

Swihart was considered to be one of the best and most well-rounded high school catching prospects in years despite coming from a New Mexico high school and only converting to catcher during his junior year. He was also considered a difficult sign, as he grew up in Austin, Texas and had a scholarship to the University of Texas. Such potential road blocks rarely scares away the Red Sox, though, and they inked Swihart to a $2.5M signing bonus.

Although he has very good defensive tools, including arm strength that enables him to throw in the low-to-mid 90s off the mound, Swihart’s most impressive tools are on offense. He is a switch-hitter with legitimate prospect level ability from both sides of the plate, a rarity for any high school hitter but even more so for a catcher. Swihart’s right handed swing is stronger and more powerful and will produce more extra base hits, but his left handed swing is crisp and firm, especially against top level velocity, and will result in a better batting average. He projects better with the bat from both sides at the same age than present Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, also a first round (comp) pick out of high school.

4. OF Brandon JacobsBaseball-reference player profile

Jacobs was all set to play running back at Auburn when the Red Sox offered him $750,000 as their 10
th round pick in 2009. Unlike many football standouts with limited baseball background, Jacobs showed an aptitude for hitting almost immediately and was able to compete in the college oriented New York-Penn League as a 19-year old in 2010. He then really blossomed with the bat in the South Atlantic League in 2011, hitting .303-17-80/.881 OPS to go with 30 stolen bases.

At a chiseled 6-1/225, Jacobs combination of strength and speed stands out and he has potential impact tools offensively. Like many former football players on the other hand, Jacobs raw arm strength is limited and he is already relegated to left field defensively.

5. RHP Anthony RanaudoBaseball-reference player profile

Ranaudo endured an up and down three year career at Louisiana State, where he alternated between being considered the top pitcher in college baseball and a potential No. 1 overall pick and struggling with elbow and mechanical issues. Boston grabbed him in the compensation round of the 2010 draft and paid him first round money ($2.5M) after other teams shied away.

Given that background, perhaps the best thing that the 6-7/230 Ranaudo did in 2011 was stay out of the limelight and make 26 consecutive starts between low and high A ball. (9-6, 3.97, 127 IP/117 K). His stuff was not overpowering, sitting in the low 90s and only occasionally flashing consistent plus velocity, but his curveball and change up were constants and he showed the ability to pitch and make adjustments.

The Red Sox system has a healthy supply of starting pitchers who project to be solid middle of the rotation work-horses but few who show star potential. Ranaudo has a chance to be the one that emerges from the work-horse pack at this point.

6. RHP Matt BarnesBaseball-reference player profile

The Red Sox are not an organization that has collected many high velocity arms, so the hard throwing Barnes immediately became the hardest throwing true prospect in the system when he signed just before the deadline last August. The Connecticut right hander can hold his mid 90s velocity into the late innings of starts and has an effortless delivery that makes it look like he can throw all day. He has also shown the ability to throw to contact with his fastball and threw complete games last year with under 100 pitches.

How fast Barnes moves up the ladder will depend on how his curveball and change up develop. He has shown an average to plus curveball in the past but lost his feel for it and became almost exclusively a fastball pitcher at times last year.

7. OF Bryce BrentzBaseball-reference player profile

The Red Sox first round compensation pick (36
th overall) in 2010 bounced back from a horrible pro debut (.198-5-39/.598 OPS) to slug through both levels of A ball in his first full season (.306-30-94/.939) in 2011. Brentz is an immensely strong right handed hitter who can drive the ball out of the park to all fields when he gets his hands extended through the ball. Although he isn’t an all or nothing hitter, there is no mistaking that Brentz is swinging hard and trying to drive the ball with power.

Brentz was a two-way star in college at Middle Tennessee State and reached the mid-90s off the mound, so he has plenty of arm strength for right field.

8. 2B Sean CoyleBaseball-reference player profile

The Red Sox saw Coyle’s tools and baseball skills and not his 5-8/175 size when they picked him in the third round in 2010 and gave him a $1.3M signing bonus to keep him from joining his brother Tommy in the infield at North Carolina. There was never a time that his tools were on display more than at the 2009 Perfect Game National Showcase, when Coyle ran a 6.40 60, threw 88 mph across the diamond from shortstop and a blasted a game home run deep into the left centerfield seats at the Metrodome.

Coyle rewarded the Red Sox with a standout first full season, hitting .247-14-64/.826 OPS with 20 stolen bases in the South Atlantic League while playing excellent defense at second base. He has a tendency to go hunting home runs too frequently at the cost of solid contact, but his power potential is part of his tool package. He has been compared to a Craig Biggio/Brian Roberts type offense second baseman.

9. C Ryan LavarnwayBaseball-reference player profile

There seems to be little doubt that Lavarnway is a Major League caliber hitter. He led the NCAA in hitting (.467) as a sophomore at Yale and has been the Red Sox minor league offensive player of the year the past two seasons. He hit .290-32-93/.939 OPS between AA and AAA last year and then drove in eight runs in nine starts amidst Boston’s September swoon.

The question has always been the 6-4/225 Lavarnway’s ability to handle the defensive responsibilities behind the plate, something he has the makeup and work ethic for but only marginal physical tools. The Red Sox have seemingly voted on the matter for 2012, signing former Tampa Bay and Cleveland catcher Kelly Shoppach (.176-11-22 in 2011) to back up returning starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia. That leaves Lararnway with some spots starts at best against tough left handers in place of DH David Ortiz and the lead right handed pinch hitting role.

10. 3B Garin CecchiniBaseball-reference player profile

Cecchini was a highly regarded Louisiana high school prospect in 2010 but tore his ACL early in the spring going back into first base on a routine pick off throw and missed the rest of the spring and summer after undergoing surgery. The Red Sox thought enough about his potential to pick Cecchini in the fourth round anyway, and eventually bought him out of a LSU scholarship with a $1.31M bonus.

The left handed hitting Cecchini was primarily a shortstop in high school, although no one projected him to stay at that position professionally. His tools and athleticism should be fine at third base once he has enough repetitions under his belt. His value is in his bat, where he has the same type of power potential from the left side as top prospect Will Middlebrooks has from the right side, only with a much more polished approach that should produce a higher batting average and far more walks. Cecchini was having an excellent pro debut in the New York-Penn League (.298-3-23/.898 OPS) before breaking his right wrist barely a month into the season.

Others in the Conversation: OF Jackie Bradley, RHP Chris Carpenter, LHP Felix Doubront, OF Jeremy Hazelbaker, SS Jose Iglesias, LHP Cody Kukuk, LHP Henry Owens, C Christian Vazquez, SS Jose Vinicio, RHP Alex Wilson, RHP Brandon Workman

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